IDLIB, SYRIA — Mohammed Sadder was sitting outside with his eldest son in the midday heat when a shell from government-held territory tore through the air and struck his family home.
His wife, mother, and daughter had been laying out lunch on the living room floor.
The 62-year-old dug through the dust and rubble, yelling out for any signs of life from his family inside. When he found his wife and mother, they were badly injured, but his 5-year-old daughter Islam had been killed.
Later that evening, with his wife and mother in the hospital, Mohammed carried Islam’s body a few hundred yards down the road to a hill where hundreds of other bodies are buried. He dug her grave with his bare hands, and collapsed next to the small mound of dirt, not wanting to leave her side.
Since late April, the Syrian regime and its Russian allies have launched near-daily airstrikes and shelling throughout the province of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold left after 8 years of bitter civil war. While Syrian President Bashar al-Assad claims he is targeting rebel terrorist groups, it’s clear that civilians like Mohammad are bearing the brunt of a relentless and indiscriminate bombing campaign.
More than 700 civilians, including 300 children, have been killed since the latest offensive began. More than 400,000 more have been displaced in the same time frame, according to the United Nations. Meanwhile, the Syrian Civil Defense teams work round the clock to help struggling families move away from neighborhoods that are still being shelled.
“It’s an indescribable fear,” Rajaa Hamdu Kazmuz, a mother of seven told Vice News. The fighting continues even as Russian, Turkish and Iranian leaders have agreed to multiple ceasefires to end the violence in Idlib Province.
Kazmuz and her seven children spent the last few weeks sleeping in a makeshift bunker beneath their house, hoping to escape the worst of it until the next lull in fighting. But the shelling has only ramped up in recent weeks, and she’s looked on in horror as several of her neighbors have been killed. They’re currently living without electricity, and basic goods have become hard to get hold of. Her children are afraid to even walk outside.
So they packed up their belongings in mid-September and drove 60 miles towards Turkey, praying that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s bombs wouldn’t reach them there.
But they’ll face another set of roadblocks on the Turkish border, where displaced Syrians have flooded in by the thousands in recent months. Facing the mounting humanitarian emergency on his border, President Recep Erdogan has warned global leaders that he’ll throw his country’s gates open, sparking fears that another refugee crisis could reach Europe’s borders.
But few solutions appear readily available. On September 19, the UN voted on a resolution to work towards a peaceful resolution in war-battered Idlib, but China and Russia, killed it, all but assuring the violence in Idlib will continue indefinitely.
Those in Idlib who cannot afford transport to safer areas, have resigned themselves to their fate.
The day after burying his 5-year-old daughter, Mohammed shoveled out enough rubble so he could sleep in a corner of what’s left of his home.
“Where would we go?” he asked, “I don’t even have enough for a cab fare... We’ll clean it up and continue living here.” Pointing to a grave adjacent to his daughter’s, he added, “That’s my spot. If Allah wills it.”
Cover: Hosam al-Sadder combs through rubble the day after his home was shelled in Idlib Province. His youngest sister, Islam, was killed when the roof collapsed. (Photo: Zach Caldwell via VICE News)